That there’s considerable debate on which five Montreal Canadiens prospects are most NHL-ready is as good of an indication as any that the depth of the pool has grown substantially over the last few years.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Canadiens’ cupboard was bare, but fruitful drafts in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and a few savvy trades made by general manager Marc Bergevin, have changed that situation.
The team has budding NHL talent — and not only waiting in the wings in the American Hockey League, but also in the NCAA and in different parts of Europe.
So, again, the exercise of ranking Montreal’s top-five most NHL-ready prospects has become more challenging. For our purposes, we’re keeping it to players who are under the age of 25.
Noah Juulsen, RHD, Laval Rocket, AHL
GP: 11 | G: 0 | A: 3 | PTS: 3
If not for severe complications from a facial injury suffered with the Canadiens last season, the 22-year-old who was drafted 26th overall in 2015 would likely already be patrolling the blue line in Montreal rather than the one in Laval.
Juulsen, who played 21 games with the Canadiens a season ago and has since played just 14 with Laval, met with a specialist in Montreal on Wednesday to address recurring migraines he’s suffering from.
But he’s back with the Rocket and expected to play Friday against the Syracuse Crunch.
We were in Laval to watch him play two weeks ago, and the game he displayed in 44 NHL appearances with the Canadiens is the same one we saw down there. He’s steady, reliable in his own end, physical, efficient and he’s a smart player.
If a place opens up on the right side of Montreal’s defence, Juulsen is fit to take it.
Alexander Romanov, LHD, CSKA Moscow, KHL
GP: 29 | G: 0 | A: 3 | PTS: 3
Just like Juulsen, we’re talking about a steady, stay-at-home type in Romanov.
But that’s not to say he isn’t a good puck mover, or that he’s incapable of driving play at the other end of the ice. The 19-year-old has proven to be a versatile player and he’s taking on more responsibility and shining in his second KHL season.
It was after last year’s world junior championship that Bergevin said Romanov looks like a player who’s already primed to play in the NHL. He’s only gotten better since.
Romanov’s KHL contract expires after this season. Bergevin will have to convince the 38th overall pick in 2018 to come to Montreal, which has to at least be part of the reason he’s scheduled to visit Moscow this weekend.
Lukas Vejdemo, C, Laval Rocket, AHL
GP: 22 | G: 6 | A: 6 | P: 12
There was some hype about this skilled Swedish forward the Canadiens selected 87th overall in 2015, but it died down considerably after he took more time to develop and several other high-end players were drafted by the team.
Well, the six-foot-two leading scorer of the Rocket makes this list because he plays the game the right way. There’s some doubt he’s got NHL speed, but Vejdemo’s smarts and his responsible play make him a viable call-up option for the Canadiens.
One scout who’s spent a lot of time watching Laval this season told us he thinks the 23-year-old is guaranteed to play some NHL games at some point. It seems clear we’re getting closer to that point.
Cayden Primeau, G, Laval Rocket, AHL
GP: 11 | 7-3-1-1 | SA % .915 | GAA 2.35
You might be wondering what the 199th pick in 2017, who has just 11 games of professional experience under his belt, might be doing on this list.
It’s fair if you are, but ask yourself this: If Canadiens starter Carey Price suffered a long-term injury — knock on wood he doesn’t — who do you think the team would be turning to in his absence?
We can’t say for sure it would be Primeau, but we’d wager plenty it would be.
This kid has a long road ahead of him, but the doubt he could step into the NHL and be effective immediately is eroding by the day. Take out one game, in which he allowed five goals on 20 shots, and his numbers are eye-popping (that’s a .928 save percentage, which would rank him third among AHL goaltenders this season).
It’s not just about how Primeau plays, but it also about who he is. He’s calm, he’s collected, hard-working, and he conducts himself like a true professional.
Gustav Olofsson, LHD, Laval Rocket, AHL
GP: 20 | G: 0 | A: 7 | P: 7
Alright, Olofsson is a bit of a wildcard because he missed all of last season with a shoulder injury and sat all of Canadiens training camp after re-injuring his shoulder, and we admit he just makes the age criteria given that he’ll turn 25 on Dec. 1.
But this player, whom the Canadiens acquired in a one-for-one trade last year for forward Will Bitten, six-foot-two, 200-pound left-handed defenceman who could potentially step into the NHL and make headway.
Olofsson is a smart two-way defenceman who skates well and doesn’t shy away from the physical game. He’s a simple and effective player, one who was drafted 46th overall in 2013 for those very reasons.
Injuries have obviously gotten in the way over the last two years, but Olofsson has 66 games of NHL experience and could be seen as the most reliable option this season if the Canadiens lose a defenceman on the left side.
• Ryan Poehling isn’t far off, but currently needs some time in Laval to get his game and his confidence in order.
• Cole Caufield, the 15th overall pick in 2019 who has nine goals and 16 points in his first 14 games with the NCAA’s Wisconsin Badgers, is coming along as expected and could potentially be with the Canadiens once the college season wraps up.
• Otto Leskinen, the 22-year-old defenceman who signed with Montreal in the off-season, is navigating his first season in North America well. If he keeps progressing in Laval, he could become a call-up option in short order.